9 things to know as Chattanooga Lookouts host playoff game for first time since 2017

Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / AT&T Field will host at least one more Chattanooga Lookouts baseball game in 2023. The Lookouts will face the Tennessee Smokies there on Thursday night but trailing 1-0 in the best-of-three Southern League North Division Series. If the Lookouts win, they'll also play the Smokies at AT&T Field on Friday night.

The Chattanooga Lookouts will need to find postseason magic again at AT&T Field if they want to advance to the Southern League Championship Series for the eighth time in club history.

For the first time since former Lookouts slugger Jonathan Rodriguez blasted a walk-off home run off the left-field scoreboard to clinch a share of the 2017 league championship, Chattanooga will host a playoff baseball game atop Hawk Hill.

After falling 3-1 on the road to the Tennessee Smokies on Tuesday to open the best-of-three North Division Series, the Lookouts must win two straight at home to advance to the SLCS, a best-of-three set that starts Sunday. Pensacola has a 1-0 lead in the South Division Series after winning 5-2 at Montgomery on Tuesday.

Here are nine things to know heading into Game 2 between the Smokies and the Lookouts at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at AT&T Field (Game 3, if necessary, would be played at the same time Friday).

1. Stellar at home

No team in the Southern League was better at home this season than Chattanooga. The Lookouts have averaged six runs per game at their friendly confines, where they are 41-28 in 2023.

2. James Free on fire

The league’s reigning player of the week is batting .440 (11-for-25) with a pair of home runs, seven RBIs and five walks over his past seven games for Chattanooga.

3. Heavily armed in ’88

In their first season as a Double-A affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds, the Lookouts won their first league crown in the 25th year of the Southern League. Chattanooga’s pitching staff carried a minuscule 2.80 ERA for the 1988 season, and Keith Brown, Chris Hammond and Scott Scudder all went on from that team to help Cincinnati win the 1990 World Series. Keith Lockhart and Eddie Vargas were the only two players to reach double digit in home runs for the 1988 Lookouts, whose 55 as a team were the fewest in the league that year.

4. Party time at Engel

After winning their first Southern League crown, the Lookouts toasted the title with fans on the field at Engel Stadium, their home prior to the move to their current stadium in 2000. In the companion book to the Ken Burns documentary “Baseball,” Ken Burns wrote this: “The (Chattanooga) players didn’t retreat into the privacy of their clubhouse to celebrate. Instead, they hoisted fans who had rushed with them across the diamond, sharing bottles of champagne. The organ boomed out ‘Happy Days are Here Again.’ For thirty minutes the infield was a swirling mass of raucous celebrants.”

5. Two in three years

While serving as a minor league affiliate for the Minnesota Twins from 2015-18, the Lookouts won a pair of Southern League titles to end the drought that followed their 1988 success. D.J. Baxendale and Jason Wheeler were on the mound as the Lookouts shut out the Biloxi Shuckers in Game 5 to clinch the 2015 title, and Max Kepler hit three home runs for Chattanooga in the series. The Lookouts and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos shared the 2017 league title when the SLCS was cancelled due to the threat of Hurricane Irma in Florida. The Lookouts went 91-49 that season, the third-best record in all of minor league baseball.

6. Clutch factor missing

The Lookouts had several opportunities to win Tuesday’s game at Tennessee, but they left 10 runners on base and went just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

7. Towel giveaway

The first 1,000 fans at AT&T Field on Thursday will receive a playoff towel courtesy of Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical. Gates open at 6, and fans will also be treated to $2 drink specials on Thirsty Thursday.

8. Dunn makes history

Chattanooga leadoff hitter Blake Dunn has been one of the brightest stars in minor league baseball this year. Dunn is one of just five minor leaguers over the past 30 years to hit 20 home runs and steal 50 bases in a season; he finished the regular season with 23 homers and 54 steals. Dunn joined an exclusive list that already included Andruw Jones (1995), Anthony Volpe (2022), Jonatan Clase (2023) and Ryan Bliss (2023).

9. Breakout season for Hinds

Rece Hinds has shown exactly why he was one of the sport’s most coveted prospects in the 2019 MLB draft. Hinds led the Lookouts this season with 23 home runs and 98 RBIs, and he also stole 20 bases and produced an on-base plus slugging percentage of .866. Hinds generated 29 doubles and six triples in 412 at-bats during the regular season.

Contact Patrick MacCoon at pmaccoon@timesfreepress.com.